Marvel Phase Five: The X-Men!

(Implied SPOILERS for WandaVision Episode 5, and speculation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward.)

In 2008, when Nick Fury told Tony Stark that he’d become part of a bigger universe, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. It was a slow release of blockbuster movies that introduced Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, brought them together as The Avengers, and kept expanding to a network of interconnected TV and movie franchises to stand in the ranks of vast properties like Star Trek and Star Wars. As of WandaVision episode 5, it looks like Phase Four of the MCU has introduced the Multiverse, and once again, Marvel’s presence on the big and small screens has expanded again.

Assuming Marvel Studios builds an in-house continuity for the X-Men and the Fantastic Four–and I hope they do, instead of importing it from the Fox movies–it feels like it’s time for the MCU to shift its focus off the Avengers. Captain America is old, and has lived a full life. Iron Man, the Black Widow, and (through tragic real-world circumstances) the Black Panther are dead. The Hulk’s days of two-fisted smashing are done. There are still Avengers, but Marvel Studios is giving them the small-screen treatment. It’s time for some new players filling out the blockbuster and tentpole movie schedule. And it should all build on what the MCU has already established.

Here Come the Mutants

In the comics, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch have a complex history. They began as mutants in Uncanny X-Men #4, were later revealed to be the children of Magneto himself, and then–around the time both Marvel Studios and Fox introduced Quicksilver to their cinematic universes–retconned in the comics into not being mutants at all, but creations of a non-X-character called the High Evolutionary with no ties to Magneto.

The MCU has a strong foundation to reconcile Wanda and Pietro as both mutants and science-empowered beings. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the twins were established as the only survivors of Baron Strucker’s experiments with the Mind Stone. Strucker never replicated this success. Hydra was playing with forces it didn’t understand. Small wonder: the Infinity Stones, as the Collector explained in Guardians of the Galaxy, were from the beginning of the universe, and used by the godlike Celestials to “mow down entire civilizations.”

In the comic books, the Celestials were also responsible for seeding the potential for the mutant “X-gene” in humanity. They are responsible for the evolution of mutants on Earth. Could Baron Strucker unwittingly have activated the latent X-gene in Wanda and Pietro with the Infinity Stone?

The Eternals Connection

In November 2021, the Phase Four movie Eternals promises to reveal ancient history in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the comics, the Celestials visited Earth before the dawn of humankind and created two races: the godlike Eternals, and their monstrous, ever-changing opposite numbers, the Deviants. They also seeded superhuman potential (the X-gene) in the indigenous primates who would become humans. Mutant origins are tied to Eternal origins, and with Marvel Studios’ acquisition of character rights to the X-Men, the timing couldn’t be better.

Eternals may reveal the reason the Celestials mowed down civilizations, and it’s an opportunity to surface and put context around some major Marvel Comics storylines. But more on that later. Why do the Celestials create and destroy life? They’re experimenters on a cosmic scale, seeding and monitoring cosmic potential in life on various worlds. Their methods are Darwinian. They come back every few millennia to check on the progress of their experiments and add evolutionary stress to the system. Worlds that aren’t evolving fast enough, the Celestials destroy.

Anyone else notice that Ultron, whose mind was essentially the Mind Stone, wanted to create an extinction event, and thought the Avengers were trying to keep humankind from evolving? And that he had a soft spot for Wanda and Pietro?

The Apocalypse Connection

Apocalypse is an important figure in X-Men mythology. He’s considered the first mutant, an immortal “External,” who rose to power in ancient Egypt after the fall of Rama-Tut, a version of the time-traveling villain Kang (who happens to be the villain in the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania). Early in his career, Apocalypse learned about the impending Celestial judgment and, under some writers, used his Four Horsemen as stressors to push mutantkind into emergence and ascendency. In X-Factor #50, the X-Men traveled to another planet that the Celestials were about to judge, and Jean Grey linked all the mutants of that world together to repel them. The world thus passed judgment.

The MCU has an opportunity to streamline Apocalypse and use him as early as Phase Four. Instead of an “External,” make him a rogue Eternal, a Promethean figure whose mission is to awaken mutants of Earth in preparation for the planet’s eventual Celestial judgment. Apocalypse can be the through-line of a long-simmering Judgment War storyline, the way Thanos was behind Infinity War.

The Sinister Connection

Another important figure in X-Men mythology is Mister Sinister. A contemporary of Charles Darwin with an obsession with mutant potential, Nathaniel Essex was set on his path by Apocalypse himself, given long life and the technology to run experiments on mutantkind, he used science to give himself a vast array of mutant powers, and operated in the shadows throughout history. He was the villain behind “The Mutant Massacre,” a major X-Men storyline and a “culling” in the same spirit (if on a smaller scale) as Apocalypse’s and the Celestials’ attempts to pressure mutant evolution.

The MCU could weave him into the story with end-credits scenes, having him give a Darwinian vocabulary to Apocalypse for the Celestials’ goals, working with Baron Strucker, and maybe even founding S.W.O.R.D.

The S.W.O.R.D. Connection

WandaVision introduced S.W.O.R.D. to the MCU, and it’s a departure from the comics, where it was a space-facing sister agency to S.H.I.E.L.D., the Sentient World Observation and Response Department. In WandaVision, the acronym stands for the Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division, and the dialogue suggests that they may be interested in doing more than observing and responding to sentient weapons.

The MCU S.W.O.R.D. sounds more like an organization that has closer ties to Marvel’s mutants: Weapon X. They’re the group responsible for Wolverine’s adamantium bones, and are tied to the origins of characters like Deadpool and Sabertooth. Weapon X used mutants as weapons, often against mutants.

What will S.W.O.R.D. do after their confrontation with Wanda? What’s Director Tyler Hayward’s reaction to being overpowered by one woman? And are those commercials referencing Hydra just Wanda’s traumatic memories, or signs of something more sinister?

The Franklin Richards Connection

The MCU’s version of Fantastic Four will round out Phase Four, and its comic lore is full of connections to Eternals and the Power Cosmic that they wield. The Fantastic Four were responsible for the fall of Rama-Tut (enabling the rise of Apocalypse in ancient Egypt). And they have another connection: their son, Franklin Richards. Franklin is the most powerful of Marvel’s mutants, capable of creating entire universes. He might also explain the ultimate goal of the Celestials’ experiments: reproduction, of a sort. To create something that will surpass them.

A Possible Phase Five Timeline

Given the groundwork already established in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I humbly propose these events for Phase Five and beyond.

  1. Establish the Celestials as the origins of superhuman potential in humanity, who will someday return to Earth to judge our evolutionary progress.
  2. Reimagine Apocalypse as a rogue Eternal, a Promethean figure whose long game is to save Earth from Celestial judgment by accelerating X-gene expression.
  3. Acknowledge far-future conqueror Kang’s history as Rama-Tut, making Apocalypse and Kang the alpha and omega of humankind’s evolutionary journey who both know What’s Coming.
  4. Introduce Mister Sinister as an agent of Apocalypse (the Horseman of Pestilence), pulling strings in the shadows like Baron Strucker’s experiments with the twins and S.W.O.R.D. (the MCU version of Weapon X).
  5. Introduce Magneto as an agent of Apocalypse (the Horseman of War), using Apocalypse’s conferred longevity as a way to keep Magneto’s World War II origin, but keep him active in the modern world. Reestablish him as the twins’ biological father.
  6. Introduce Wolverine, weapon of S.W.O.R.D. And what the heck, Deadpool too, who is insane and remembers a whole different universe.
  7. Introduce Charles Xavier and the X-Men, pitted against Magneto’s mutant supremacist ideology.
  8. Event: The Mutant Massacre. Pit Mister Sinister and his Marauders/S.W.O.R.D. weapons against Magneto and the mutants he has rallied, turning Magneto against Apocalypse, because his origins guarantee he cannot tolerate a eugenics program against mutants.
  9. Franklin Richards is born to Sue and Reed Richards. His birth is a signal flare to the Celestials.
  10. Event: Secret War. Retell the beloved Marvel Comics event by reimagining the Beyonder as Arishem, the Celestial Judge. The mutants and the cosmically empowered characters are taken to Battleworld, a Celestial petri dish. They are judged… and they FAIL.
  11. The Silver Surfer comes to Earth and tangles with the Fantastic Four. He reveals he’s the herald of a being called Galactus.
  12. Event: The Judgment War. Reimagine Exitar, the Celestial Executioner, as Galactus. His job is to exterminate the failed experiment that is humanity. All the heroes need to come together, Infinity War- and Endgame- style, to save the world. And, of course, the key is Franklin Richards.

That should account for another two decades of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at which point they’ll branch out the multiverse to cross over with Star Wars, Disney, Pixar, The Simpsons, and National Geographic.

Reality Check

As much as I love to plot out a complex roadmap for mutants in the Marvel Universe, the way it actually plays out is likely much simpler. In the House of M storyline, Wanda Maximoff, out of despair, rid the world (almost) of the X-gene by uttering the words “No more mutants.” Given her new reality-warping powers, mutants may be introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe just as simply.

Mirror-Image House of M

Marvel Phase Four: The Multiverse!

SPOILERS for the Marvel Studios universe up through WandaVision Episode 5, and speculation beyond. 

The Joy of a Slow Watch

I’ve been starved for new live-action Marvel Studios programming taking place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the parallel quantum universe without the coronavirus pandemic, I would have already seen Black Widow, Eternals, and Shang-Chi by now. Instead, I get 30 minutes every Friday of WandaVision.

And I love it.

In an era where so much is available online, and entire seasons are released to be binge-watched, I love having to wait. Each episode, questions are answered but deeper questions are uncovered. And I have a week to speculate on the answers. This might be the most enjoyable thing about being in a slow-release fandom, and the reason why many of us loathe spoilers. We are forced to engage with open questions in a story with only our own imaginations and that of our friends. We become active participants in the storytelling process, not just passive consumers. Being a fan of a shared universe becomes an intellectual exercise, where there is a potential thrill both in having guessed right and in being surprised.

The end of WandaVision episode 5 took it to a new level.

When Recasting Opens Doors

Wanda “recasting” Pietro Maximoff from Fox’s X-Men franchise brings together comic book lore, the mythos of two separate Marvel cinematic continuities, and the meta issues of what we’ll be able to see when corporate barriers of ownership fall away. The interconnected possibility of Marvel Comics at last finds potential purchase in big-budget movies.

Briefly, the corporate issues in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were around character licensing rights. Until Spider-Man: Homecoming, we could never see Spider-Man interact with the Avengers because Sony owned the cinematic rights to that set of characters. We could see the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in the MCU and alongside the X-Men because they were characters who belonged in both Avengers and X-Men character sets. But the MCU could never make mention of them being Magneto’s children, because Magneto was an X-Men character. And Fox could never have them fighting alongside the Avengers.

WandaVision had already paid homage to Bewitched, a show that recast Darrin Stephens from Dick York to Dick Sargent without an in-story explanation. So there’s a reference gag, but Dr. Darcy Lewis hangs a lantern on the recasting in the show-within-a-show reality. This wasn’t an arbitrary recasting. Earlier in episode 5, Wanda explained that even she could not bring back the dead, and her brother Pietro had died in the fight against Ultron. Instead of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Pietro, she pulled Evan Peters’s Pietro–the one from Fox’s X-Men universe–into her pocket reality. We, the audience, are supposed to know this. And there is only one conclusion: The X-Men movies “exist” somehow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

To underscore the connections, when Wanda confronts the S.W.O.R.D. soldiers and turns their own guns on them, it’s a deliberate callback to Magneto’s confrontations with police. You almost expect her to sneer “You homo sapiens and your guns.”

WandaVision plays with the idea of a microcosm universe, its boundaries with a larger universe, and what happens when things cross those boundaries. Against the real-world backdrop of Disney consolidating ownership of Marvel properties, Episode 5 feels like a first look at the expanded world. But why explicitly acknowledge the Fox movies?

Reboots and RetCons

The J. J. Abrams Star Trek movies recast the original Enterprise crew and even retold Wrath of Khan, but didn’t sever its narrative continuity completely. Time travel, a branching parallel reality, and Leonard Nimoy as “old Spock” were all attempts to have it both ways: loyalists to the past continuity as well as new viewers were given reasons to jump on board.

For me, it was a tactic with unsatisfying results. It didn’t feel enough like the old Star Trek, but neither did it feel like something exciting and new. The merging of the iterations didn’t add enough to the story to justify the narrative complexity.

If that is what’s happening with the Marvel movie franchises, we’ll have to see how well it’s executed. Long-time comic book readers are used to “retroactive continuity” tricks used to make decades of comic book stories seem smoothly continuous. There’s a reluctance to “invalidate” any story in the canon from “having actually happened.” Still, at best, they’re grudgingly accepted as a genre feature. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been remarkably (not not perfectly) coherent and consistent so far. To mess with that is to mess with one of the most compelling features of the MCU, something that stands in contrast to the efforts of the DC Comics adaptations. Whether acknowledging the Fox-verse (and Sony-verse in the Spider-Man movies) becomes something that benefits or harms the MCU will be revealed going into 2022.

MCU Phase Four: The Multiverse

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been teasing parallel or offshoot universes since Avengers: Endgame. Bruce Banner’s conversation with the Ancient One raised the danger of the creation of new timelines, should someone travel to the past and alter the flow of causality. That was why it was so important that, after Thanos was defeated, Captain America made a final set of time jumps, to replace the Infinity Stones to the places in history from which they were taken, so the events could unfold as we had seen them unfold.

Spider-Man: Far From Home raised the possibility that Thanos’s “snap” had broken the barriers to parallel universes, and the elemental creatures were invaders from another reality. This turned out to be a hoax by the villain Mysterio, but Marvel Studios was priming the audience.

Captain America’s final Endgame mission failed before it began. The timeline indeed bifurcated, by the Ancient One’s rules. When the Endgame Avengers traveled back to just after the events of the first Avengers movie, the plan went awry and Loki escaped with the Tesseract (Space Stone). There is now a quantum universe where Thor did not take Loki to be imprisoned in Asgard. Loki didn’t languish in prison until Malekith’s attack, nor perhaps did he team up with Thor to defeat Malekith and claim the Reality Stone. And the Tesseract was never on display in Odin’s vault to be stolen again by Loki, who then never traded it to Thanos for Thor’s life. 

Loki will have his own Disney+ show in May 2021, picking up from his escape with the Tesseract. The teaser trailer shows that he will be arrested by the Time Variance Authority for branching the time stream. With Loki involved, he’ll probably leave the multiverse more chaotic than he found it. Could Wanda’s ability to pull from different cinematic universes be a result of the Swiss cheese Loki is making of the walls between realities?

Spider-Man’s next MCU film in December 2021 has a swirl of rumors that characters from Sony’s two other Spider-Man iterations will appear, including Toby Maguire’s and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Men. Is this Wanda’s doing? Loki’s? Is there an impending collision of universes, similar to Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers comic book run?

The next Doctor Strange movie in March 2022, The Multiverse of Madness, appears to tackle this concept head-on. Wanda will be in the movie too, and the script was rewritten by the same sceenwriter who wrote Loki. There’s already a lot of connective tissue, just from the news available.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is also scheduled for 2022, and the rumors say it will feature the time-traveling Avengers villain Kang the Conqueror. The Marvel Cinematic Universe will be playing with the time streams well into next year, possibly concluding with the release of the first MCU Fantastic Four movie. (Does anyone else think Monica Rambeau’s astrophysicist contact could be Reed Richards?)

The Fantastic Four is a family of explorers of other dimensions and realities. It’s possible that the multiverse will be treated as a feature of the MCU, rather than a problem to be solved. If that’s the case, what’s next? The only limit now is Disney’s ownership rights, and that’s a large multiverse indeed.

Post-Credits Scene after the final episode of WandaVision

[Nick Fury walks into a secret safehouse.]

[From the shadows]: You think this is the only superhero universe?

[The Scarlet Witch steps out of the shadows, her eyes glowing red]

Scarlet Witch: Mister Fury, you’ve become part of a multiverse. You just don’t know it yet. I’m here to talk to you about the House of M.